EDITORIAL: Can we disagree—and be nice, too?

Marv Knox

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For several days now, I’ve been carrying a note I wrote to myself. It says: “100% agreement not mandatory.”

I have no idea when I put down those words. The piece of paper is getting pretty ragged on the edges, so, I’ve obviously been toting it around for awhile, reading the message to myself every day. But I know why I wrote that note. I’m bone tired of the notion people have to agree completely, or else they’re adversaries.

Marv Knox

Have you experienced this attitude? You disagree, and the person you’re talking to goes from zero to furious in about 0.046 seconds. It’s not like you attacked this person or said bad things about his mother. You just happened to disagree. And now you’re the enemy.

We probably see more of this behavior in years that are divisible by four. Presidential elections seem to bring predispositions toward partisanship out in people.

Tilt toward incivility 

Beyond election-year politics, this pattern reflects a broader tilt toward incivility. When we think clearly about disagreement, we recognize the “other” has reasons for believing. And when we think humbly about disagreement, we concede even we may be wrong.

Unfortunately, clarity and humility don’t surface that often, particularly in American discourse. Once, I illustrated this by describing the patterns of rhetoric and the belittle-to-win-an-argument tactics I hear on talk radio. Maybe I called it the “Rush Limbaughization of America.” But because I disagreed with some folks about the efficacy of talk radio and the contributions of radio hosts, some folks got really mad. Touché.

Sadly, congregations practice this kind of thinking all the time. Don’t believe it? Bring up the subject of worship music, and you’ll get an earful from partisans of “traditional” and “contemporary.” Sometimes, you’d think Jesus only likes one kind of music—never mind that neither the organ nor the guitar were invented when Jesus preached.

I'm guilty, too 

Full disclosure: My wife, Joanna, will vouch I’m inclined this way, too. We’re fixing dinner and talking about stuff, and she disagrees. If I don’t watch it, I’m raising my voice, as if practically shouting will force her to see the pure light of my reasoning. “I disagree, but you don’t have to get mad about it,” she says. And she’s right.

The tragedy of resorting to anger when we disagree manifests itself several ways:

Anger prevents us from learning important lessons.

Baptists, of all people, ought to know this. We talk about “the priesthood of all believers” and affirm every individual has the privilege and responsibility to seek wisdom directly from God. The obvious corollary to this is that no individual is the sole owner and arbiter of all wisdom. If we listen instead of shout, if we stay calm and don’t get hot, we can reason and glean knowledge and wisdom from each other. And even when we still disagree, we benefit from understanding why we disagree and why the other person thinks as she does.

When we refuse to listen, we dishonor the presence of Christ in others.

When we get hot and take a hard line solely to win an argument, we treat the other person as an object, not a child of God. But when we respond with dignity and respect—especially when we don’t agree—we affirm God’s hand in creating and guiding that person.

When we treat our positions as absolute, we ignore the complexity and ambiguity of creation.

People who disagree with us aren’t necessarily totally wrong, and their disagreement doesn’t make them totally bad. Sometimes, we forget this. In so doing, we overlook the richness and diversity of humanity, which is a blessing from God.

You can think of other examples. But here’s the deal: “100% agreement not mandatory.” In fact, healthy, open, vibrant disagreement can be a blessing.


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